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Underwriting cancelled

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By Ret Boney

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — A Chapel Hill nonprofit revoked its underwriting sponsorship of WUNC-FM after the station insisted on changing the wording of the nonprofit’s on-air acknowledgement, saying it could be interpreted as political.

Ipas, an international group that works to protect women’s health and rights, became a sponsor in February of the public radio station operated by UNC-Chapel Hill, submitting text to be read on the air in acknowledgement of its financial support.

The text, which includes the words “reproductive health and rights” in describing Ipas and its mission, initially was approved by the station and read on the air periodically until the station objected to the word “rights” in October.

“We should have the right to be able to describe our mission fully and accurately and not be told we can only describe half our mission,” says Elizabeth Maguire, president and CEO of Ipas.

“We greatly value the service the station provides to the community,” she adds.  “If the station’s management is willing to restore the word rights, we would be willing to resume our support.”

The controversy began after the station reviewed the on-air text and informed Ipas that the word “rights” could convey a political meaning, says Joan Siefert Rose, general manager of WUNC.

“I regret that Ipas has chosen to discontinue its relationship with WUNC,” she said in a statement. “Both WUNC and Ipas made a good-faith effort to reach a compromise.  WUNC is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. As a non-commercial broadcaster, we are not allowed to broadcast donor acknowledgments that include language with political meaning.”

The language came to the attention of station staff when the announcement was put back in rotation after having been replaced for a while by a new one Ipas had developed.

“We did not follow our own procedures by putting the announcement on the air in the first place,” Rose says. “Our normal review process did not catch that this might have a political connotation.”

The FCC does not provide specific language or guidance to stations on what constitutes political advocacy, Rose says, forcing stations to make judgment calls about how the FCC might interpret on-air acknowledgments.

“I think it’s open to interpretation as to whether someone could see this has a political meaning,” she says.  “At some other time, it might be clearly so or clearly not.  We weren’t sure.  In the absence of being sure, we had to err on the side of caution.”

WUNC regularly works with sponsors to craft language that conforms to FCC guidelines, Rose says, and sometimes modifies language already on the air, part of what she calls “an ongoing conversation” between the station and sponsors.

After several weeks of negotiation, including a face-to-face meeting, the two groups failed to reach an agreement, and Ipas terminated its sponsorship.

Maguire says she is heartened by public support for Ipas, including 100 signatures on a letter sent to WUNC in protest of its decision, over 300 signatures to a letter on Ipas’ website, and a letter of support signed by 22 organizations throughout the U.S.

WUNC’s “self censorship” is part of a broader climate of intimidation in the nonprofit sector, Maguire says, in which regulatory agencies in the Bush administration are attempting to silence groups with opposing views through harassment and impingement of free speech.

“It seems to be because of this current political environment,” Maguire says.  “The fringe is trying to redefine the middle.  We see our work in the mainstream.  In this current environment, the station seems to be exerting undue caution.”

She points to the recent IRS investigation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and repeated government audits of groups that oppose the administration’s views on abstinence-only policies.

“They are caving in to a fringe pressure group,” says Maguire.  “Ipas should be able to describe our work accurately and completely.  We feel that their decision denies us that right.”

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